Insight: Five examples of why high-tech companies love F1

For decades, F1 has been dubbed the “fastest R&D lab on Earth”. The notion was that motor racing technology would sooner or later trickle down to the road car.

While that was certainly the case for some innovations and inventions, it was not necessarily true on a large scale. The challenges of F1 were often too specific or the cost for industrial-scale production too high to introduce certain technologies in production vehicles.

This, however, has changed in recent years. Since the introduction of full hybrid powertrains, F1 technology has become more relevant for road cars than it has ever been before. But it is also true for other parts of the car – especially in the world of bits and bytes.

Here, Mercedes explains five reasons why now, more than ever before, F1 is at the forefront of technology – from road cars to consumer electronics, from medical technology to smart cities.

Hybrid engines – F1 makes efficiency mean power

From an engineering point of view, the hybrid power units used in Formula One are mind-blowing in terms of their thermal efficiency – in other words, their ability to convert fuel energy into useful work.

When the internal combustion engine was developed by Nicolaus Otto in 1876, it had a thermal efficiency of about 17 percent. That means that only around 17 percent of the energy in the fuel was converted into useful work.

In 2013, one year before the introduction of hybrid power units in F1, the thermal efficiency of an average road car reached roughly 30 per cent, meaning that only about one third of the petrol in the car was used to propel it.

In the summer of 2017, the staff at Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains in Brixworth, ran a Mercedes F1 power unit on their dyno – and it showed an astonishing number… the power unit reached a thermal efficiency of over 50 percent, making it the one of the most efficient internal combustion engine ever.

F1 hybrid power units are not just very efficient; they have also made considerable contributions to battery technology. The first energy recovery system was used for development testing in 2007, its energy store weighed 107 kilograms and achieved 39 percent efficiency. Since then, the weight has been reduced by over 80 percent; today, the lithium-ion battery energy store has a 20 kg minimum regulation weight. The efficiency has increased by 57 percentage points, reaching 96 percent. At the same time the energy density has doubled while the power density has increased 12-fold.

The research that has gone into making an F1 car as performant as possible does not just give the team an advantage on the track, it also helps to make road cars more efficient; the same learnings that deliver improved power for racing, can also be applied to improving fuel consumption in the road-going environment.

Connectivity – F1 technology might be in your next smart phone (or the one after that)

Formula One cars are probably the most connected cars in the world. A modern-day F1 car runs on high-tech sensors and the data they collect as much as it combusts high-tech fuel. To be competitive, F1 teams process a lot of data. An F1 car will sport hundreds of sensors logging thousands of channels of data, measuring all kinds of things around the car and power unit – from forces and displacements, temperatures and pressures to control parameters for power unit and gearbox as well as driver inputs.

Some of the telemetry data can be accessed in real-time as the car travels around the track at speeds up to 220 mph (350 km/h) and more; however, the type and amount of real-time data is limited by the control unit that is common for all teams. The majority of the data is only transferred from the car to the engineers when the car comes into the pits – either through a very fast wireless connection or with the so-called umbilical cord.

Tyres are a key performance factor in Formula One, so understanding them is crucial. During Friday practice, the teams will fit an optical, infra-red tyre monitoring system onto the car to get a comprehensive picture of how different tyres are working and understand their respective single-lap and race performance. Getting the tyre data off the car as fast as possible is important, as the car will only be stationary in or in front of the garage for a few moments. In the past, the team would either have to sacrifice track time in order to download all the data or the engineers had to wait until after the session to access the data.

In 2017, however, the Mercedes started using a system of two high-tech wireless technologies – 5 GHz 802.11ac and Multi-gigabit 802.11ad Wi-Fi technology, which operates in the millimeter wave 60 GHz band. The handover between the two 802.11 modes is managed automatically – so while the car is travelling through the pit lane, it starts to transmit the data wirelessly. Once it is within four metres of the garage, it switches to a fast uplink, transmitting the data from the car to the garage at download speeds of up to 1.9 Gbits per second. In other words, transmitting one Gigabyte of data would take less than five seconds.

This technology is not a standalone F1 product though. Qualcomm has developed it for the consumer market and used F1 as a high-speed R&D environment, putting their product to the ultimate test. In the future, similar technologies will come to your smartphone, allowing for much faster download and upload speeds and a more reliable connection, or used in connected cars to enable them to communicate with the outside world.

A challenging environment – testing high-tech in F1

The life of a typical server rack is pretty easy. They spend their days in air-conditioned, access-controlled data centres, not having to worry about heat or cold or even moving around. However, that’s not true for the servers that travel with the team. The racks in the garage store all the car data and are of vital importance – and yet they have to cope with all the things that high-tech servers usually don’t like. They are frequently packed up and shipped around the world, they have to endure temperature swings from just above freezing during winter testing to the sweltering heat in the desert of Bahrain, from the dry air of Abu Dhabi to the humidity of Singapore. Vibrations and carbon fibre dust are also quite common in the garage, neither of which are known to be friends of computer hardware. At the same time, the data on those servers needs to be quickly accessible as well as encrypted on the spot.

So compared to a ‘regular’ server in a data centre, the life of a trackside server is quite different – and quite challenging. It is precisely those challenges that make Formula One interesting for high-tech partners such as Pure Storage, the company that builds the on-track server. It’s not just server technology that is challenged by F1 – it’s all kinds of technologies – even those that seem to have nothing to do with the sport.

So while F1, for example, will – hopefully! – never become an autonomous racing series, its cars are an ideal test bed for certain technologies that are vital to autonomous driving. The sheer amount of data that needs to be processed locally on the car or sent to the garage make F1 cars a particularly interesting test environment in this regard.

Flash array servers tested in the team’s garage are suitable to be put on airplanes and cruise ships or can be used as mobile data centres on trucks. But the technology transfer goes much further into non-related areas.

For example, technology partners have applied the learnings from their cooperation with the Mercedes team to medical customers. The challenge in the garage is getting a huge amount of data from a machine – the car – into computer systems where the it can be analysed. A very similar kind of challenge can be found in a modern hospital and in medical research institutes, where large amounts of data from machines such as gene sequencers or X-ray machines have to be transferred and then analysed.

Digital engineering and testing

Formula One teams today are very data-driven organisations. The 500 Gigabytes or so that are produced at the track over the course or a race weekend are just the tip of the iceberg. At the factory, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport produces about five to ten Terabytes of data – every week! Over the course of the year, the amount of data extends to over 350 Terabytes. Virtually every department in the factory produces data, many of them in large amounts. Whether it’s Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), Computer-aided design (CAD), wind tunnels or test rigs – all of those technologies and test methods are data-heavy.

To put the annual 350 Terabytes in context – this article is about 150 Kilobytes in size as a pdf attachment. Mercedes annual data volume amounts to something along the lines of two billion preview pdfs…

Imagine having to skim through two billion features, trying to find that one piece of crucial information that you are looking for. Not exactly an easy task – and probably not a whole lot of fun either. Which is why F1 teams invest heavily in areas like data analysis, data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence. The same kind of technologies that become ever more important in many other data-driven industries as well.